The Real Thing

Think zero maintenance means man-made products? Think again. Marshall Erb details the benefits of investing in natural materials (and gives us permission to invite some necessity).

By Elise Hofer Shaw

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Because natural wool rugs have a high lanolin content, they repel water, which makes them an excellent choice for homes by the beach. (Photo credit: Marshall Erb Design)

Reality is messy. There’s no escaping the happy chaos that puts our homes to the test day in and day out: kids with art projects, puppies with muddy paws, guests who like red wine and talking with their hands… But with so many “revolutionary” products and materials out there promising performance and aesthetic beauty, it’s daunting to vet the masses—and weed through the pros and cons. Here, Marshall Erb, principal and lead designer of Marshall Erb Design in Chicago, gives us the skinny on his favorite natural materials for endurance, wellness, and reducing your carbon footprint.

In regard to materiality, what are you hearing most from your clients at the onset of a project?

Marshall Erb: The topics of wellness and conservation are driving these upfront conversations—i.e. how can we live our best lives at home while reducing our carbon footprint. I have a lot of clients who tell me that they don’t want inorganic products in their homes at all. But a 100 percent eco-home is highly unrealistic unless you are willing to cover your roof with solar panels and go net-zero energy. For most families, utilitarian spaces like the laundry room and mudroom may require things like acrylic paint and composite countertops to withstand moisture. My advice is to go as natural as possible with organic materials while making peace with some moments of necessity.

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Cambria’s natural quartz stone countertops are resistant to surface damage and come with a full lifetime warranty.

Does presentation come into play?

ME: Every client says that they want zero maintenance. But our clients also want authenticity: real stone, real wood and natural fibers. In my opinion, it’s about reconciling the wants and the needs. I’ll hear things like, ‘I don’t want to have a conversation with my spouse about floor tile or countertop maintenance in two years.’ But at the same time, there’s often the unspoken understanding that appearances matter, meaning that marble, while not as durable, is the epitome of luxury when it comes to countertops. Unfortunately, the reality is that marble—when not taken care of properly with regular preservation treatments—can scratch and stain. Because I’m a realist, and because kitchens are high-traffic, high-entertaining areas, I prefer quartz countertops. Cambria is an excellent resource for natural quartz stone countertops that are resistant to surface damage, and all come with a full lifetime warranty.

Is it a misconception that all man-made products are durable? And that all organic products are high-maintenance?

ME: Yes. When it comes to man-made products, all goods and materials are not created equal. As they say, ‘The bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten.’ At Marshall Erb Design, we look at every element of the home in terms of the big picture—the lifespan of each product—be it a piece of furniture, upholstery, hardware, etc. We pride ourselves on timeless design that transcends trends and material selection that will endure. The truth is that fast interior design, the bulk of which is man-made, isn’t actually low-maintenance because it needs to be replaced frequently. And it definitely isn’t kind to the environment with so much discarded merch filling up our landfills. Think of it this way: Investing in one gorgeous cherrywood dining table that will last for generations is better than buying 10 composite tables from a big-box store throughout the course of your lifetime.

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Between cotton and linen, both of which are renewable resources, linen is the more sustainable option for luxe bedding. (Photo credit: Marshall Erb Design)

What’s trending in natural rugs?

ME: We’re seeing a heightened interest in mohair [​​a fabric or yarn made from the hair of the Angora goat] rugs. Aesthetically, they have an interesting sheen. Mansour and The Rug Company have some lovely mohair options that are new to the marketplace. Performance wise, mohair is surprisingly durable. It was once used for theater seating because of how resilient it is. I’m also a big fan of natural wool rugs. Natural wool has a high lanolin content so it repels water. I recently poured a can of Diet Coke on a beautiful wool-and-silk carpet sample from Tai Ping and it slid right off with zero staining. It’s also important to note that synthetic materials are highly flammable. Translation: It’s not a good idea to put poly or viscose rugs in front of the fireplace or a farmhouse-style wood stove. I find it fascinating that the industry is always looking to the past for solutions for the future—and finding them! Oooh, and Angela Adams makes amazingly durable, all-natural rugs. Each is ethically and responsibly handmade in India by skilled artisans using pure New Zealand wool, cotton backing and a latex adhesive. We use her rugs a lot for our clients out West, especially those who live in ski towns.

Speaking of natural fibers, there’s been a big resurgence in organic bedding and mattresses. Can you speak to the benefits?

ME: First and foremost, no one wants to be sleeping on toxic chemicals for eight hours every night. Run-of-the-mill mattresses are made of synthetic materials. So while the field of chemical engineering has introduced a host of ‘miraculous’ consumer products, most of these chemicals have never been tested for health and safety, while others suspected of being problematic are still in widespread use (think carcinogens and harmful VOCs). If you need the Cadillac of all-natural beds, you can spend upwards of $20,000 at Hästens for a handcrafted bed-and-mattress combo with 100 percent breathable cotton. But there are a lot of other great vendors like Birch and Saatva offering eco-friendly mattresses at approachable price points. At the end of the day, you are investing in peace of mind as much as you are investing in comfort. And the same goes for sheets and blankets. Between cotton and linen, both of which are renewable resources, linen is the more sustainable option. Libeco is my go-to for linen bedding that’s luxuriously soft, and I love the Loro Piana Interiors collection for superfine cashmere blankets. Ask yourself: Would I rather be wrapped in an acrylic sweater or a cashmere sweater? Exactly.

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This soft, cozy throw blanket by Loro Piana is made from superfine cashmere yarn and boasts a suede trim.

What constitutes a performance fabric?

ME: When it comes to luxury upholstery fabrics, there’s nothing like the real thing. For example, viscose looks like silk but it doesn’t perform like silk. It unravels like wet toilet paper if it gets wet. You have to think about fabrics on a structural level. ​​Most performance fabrics are constructed from synthetic yarns like polyester, acrylic, nylon and olefin. And typically the yarns are treated with a high-performance solution before being woven into fabric to ensure the consistency, longevity and endurance of the finished product. This process is hugely offensive to the environment because the discharge is often a cocktail of carcinogenic chemicals, dyes, salts and heavy metals that pollute essential drinking water sources. So once again, we are looking to the past for ways to be better in the present. Holland & Sherry has been specializing in fine textiles since 1836, with wool being the house’s most celebrated natural fiber. From bespoke suiting to upholstery fabric, wallcoverings and more, they have an ultra-refined material concept. The overarching rule of thumb is this: When you invest in quality materials, you’ll never be disappointed.